“Dinaw Mengestu belongs to that special group of American voices produced by global upheavals and intentional, if sometimes forced, migrations. These are the writer-immigrants coming here from Africa, East India, Eastern Europe and elsewhere. Their struggles for identity mark a new turn within the ranks of American writers I like to call ‘the in-betweeners.’ The most interesting work in American literature has often been done by such writers, their liminality and luminosity in American culture produced by changing national definitions (Twain, Kerouac, Ginsberg), by being the children of immigrants themselves (Bellow, Singer), by voluntary exile (Baldwin, Hemingway) and by trauma (Bambara, Morrison).
[. . .]
“Judith, a white woman who moves into the predominantly black Logan Circle, becomes Sepha’s Beatrice, and, as with Dante, she leads him from his exile to purgatory and, eventually, to redemption. They meet over the counter in Sepha’s store, which is where all the community eventually comes together – to buy, to hang out, to shoplift, to receive and pass along gossip. Sepha’s relationship with Judith is facilitated by the wonderful connection he has to Judith’s precocious daughter, Naomi. And like Dante and Beatrice, they have a love that remains fraught and unconsummated but powerful and transformative nonetheless. Part of the difficulty is that Judith represents the new wave of gentrification and Sepha’s decision to date her is seen as an act of betrayal by the other residents. Neighborhood tensions build because of Judith (since she symbolizes the oppressor), and her home is firebombed by local thugs. Sepha’s own redemption and the choice he makes in this matter are what shape his new self.” –Chris Abani, “Dante, Beatrice in a narrative of immigration,” The Baltimore Sun (March 11, 2007)
Contributed by Francesco Ciabattoni (Georgetown University)